Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Dunsinane, Aunt Jack and Passengers

The Cast
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
There have been many brief reviews from critics of all stripes over the years. Leonard Maltin famously wrote the shortest pan ever. In response to the 2019 rom com Isn't It Romantic?, Maltin's review consisted of one word: "NO." Likewise, when Rolling Stone reviewed a Marie Osmond record in the '70s, their take was nearly as brief: "Wretched excess. Accent on wretched."

If I were looking to write the shortest positive review–in this case of Indecent, the Paula Vogel play that opened this week at San Francisco Playhouse–I could easily go for one word myself. Perhaps "brilliant" or "stunning" or "vital" or "stupendous," or even just a very simple "yes." Yes, as in, yes, go see it. Yes, get your ticket now. Yes, prepare for one of the most theatrical, thrilling, joyous, heartbreaking, illuminating, important plays you are likely to see this–or any other–year. Yes, yes, yes.

As directed by SF Playhouse producing director Susi Damilano, Indecent rang all my bells. I love the set. Wide open (symbolic perhaps of how exposed the Jews of the early to mid-20th century felt), with a suggestion of a proscenium arch placed at center stage, flanked by lighting trusses and seats for the three musicians to sit when they aren't participating on stage. Suitcases all over the stage and wings, reminding us of the nomadic nature of both touring theatre and refugees displaced by persecution and war.

I loved the cast. Scratch that. I adored the cast. Every damn one of them. Dean Linnard is something close to perfection: spectacularly wide-eyed as the youthful Lemml, thrilled to be a part of theatre even in the smallest way, yet gritty and filled with righteous anger when he feels betrayed. Malka Wallick is so touching as the young Chana that it was all I could do not to rush the stage to comfort her character when life turned against her. Victor Talmadge is an immensely powerful Otto, his big voice booming with authority, even when capital "A" Authority comes knocking on his door. And the rest? Rachel Botchan, Billy Cohen, Ted Zoldan, Rivka Borek–all do stellar, intense, focused work that enchanted me.

And the music? Loved that too. Dmitri Gaskin (accordion), Audrey Jackson (clarinet) and Matthew Stein (violin) not only provide a score that is energetic yet mournful as only klezmer music seems to be, they do more than sit in their seats and play, often fully incorporated into the action on stage.

This trio's music provides inspiration for choreographer Nicole Helfer, who has done terrific work in the past for SF Playhouse, but nearly outdoes herself here. Like the play itself, her movements manage to be both joyous and heartbreaking at the same time.

All the technical stuff–lighting (Wen Ling-Liao), sound design (James Ard), projections (Sarah Phykitt)–blend beautifully with every other aspect of Damilano's production, as do Sarah Phykitt's costumes. And kudos to properties designer Wallace Ming Yan for finding several dozen vintage suitcases and a typewriter that help to set the mood.

Oh, yes–the play. Paula Vogel has written some wonderful theatre, but this may be her very best. The story of how another playwright (Sholem Asch) watches his work achieve great success initially, only to be labeled immoral, scandalous, and pornographic (in brief, indecent) when it finally reaches Broadway is both chilling and filled with delights of many sorts. Vogel draws you in, takes you by the hand and tells you her gorgeous, funny, heartrending story that goes by in a two-hour, intermissionless whirl of beautiful, theatrical art. In fact, despite the over-the-top glory of Moulin Rouge! (at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre) or the acrobatic wonders of Passengers (at American Conservatory Theater's Toni Rembe Theatre), Indecent may well be the most theatrical piece of theatre currently playing on a Bay Area stage.

Indecent runs through November 5, 2022, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $15-$100. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.